Wendy Burden: LibraryThing Author Interview

Wendy Burden, a great-great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, has worked as an illustrator, a zookeeper, a taxidermist, an art director, and a chef. Her memoir, Dead End Gene Pool, will be available in paperback from Gotham Books on March 1.

More than a few of the reviews of Dead End Gene Pool include the line "more money than sense." Do you think that's a fair description of your family?

Yes and no. For all the advantages within a family like mine, there are disadvantages that one cannot be totally blamed for. It's sort of like sending a cosseted lap dog out to interact with a pack of normal, rough and tumble canines. The lap dog understands the mechanics of how things work because of genetics, but has no real education to deal with it. You can go to Harvard Business School and graduate top of your class and still not understand money because you’ve never been expected to do anything but enjoy it.

After a childhood with not just a house but houses full of staff, did you find it difficult to transition away from that lifestyle, or were you ready to leave it behind?

I actually love doing housework, laundry, and ironing—I have a thing for starch—but because I’m so obsessive, it takes me four times longer than anyone else. Being guilt-ridden by nature, a by-product of WASPdom, once I was old enough to have a conscience I was never comfortable with having someone do stuff for me, like make my bed or clean up after me. (Of course, once I had children, I loved the idea of someone cleaning up after them.) And in truth, I was only able to enjoy houses full of staff when I was with my grandparents. After my mother remarried, and our beloved cook and bibulous nanny were booted, guess who became the staff: my brothers and me. We did have a cleaning lady, a nutty Jehovah Witness named Daphne, who came in once a week and pushed dirt around, but other than that, we did it all ... and in England, for the first few years, we had neither dishwasher nor washing machine, not because we were so bereft, but because no one there really had the sort of appliances everyone had in the States at that time. I had to wash out my school uniform things in the sink every night in this green stuff called Fairy Liquid.

Your book is both intensely funny and at times heartbreaking. Was it hard to write about the difficult things you saw, or did you find the writing process and getting these things off your chest to be cathartic?

No, because I am a realist, and I expend very little energy on self-pity. Also, I’m extremely detail-oriented; the minutia of a story or situation is what fascinates me, and I become so caught up in the stuff of it that it leaves less room for emotion. "Just the facts. Ma'am" is sort of my mantra. The book I’m working on now, however, has been quite cathartic, and not always happily, but the subject is very different, much more personal in a way.

How did your experiences as a child and young adult affect the way you handled your own relationships, including those with your children?

I hate to admit it, but I'm a textbook case in that the lack of affection that I grew up with makes it difficult for me to be physically affectionate with people, other than my children, or a love interest. (Also accordingly, I slather my two daughters with adoration.) And because of my mother and stepfather's overt and, ahem, inappropriate sexual display at home in front of us, I become like a nun when I am with someone in front of my own children.

Did you inherit the family collecting gene? If so, what do you collect?

This is my favorite question! Boy, did I ever. Animal skulls, everything from squirrel monkeys to a camel; vintage sprinkler heads, moths, beetles, Japanese anime toys, bull terrier porcelain figurines, bamboo knitting needles, porcupine quill boxes, BOOKS! I have a problem with the book thing, especially reference books, because I'm a painter, both by training and vocation, and I paint highly realistic and detailed (surprise) still lives of birds and bones and flowers and nature, which means I can justify the purchase of just about any book with a photograph in it ... and I have the crammed shelves and piled-high floor to prove it. It's kind of a (wonderful) problem.

What's on your bookshelves? What are you reading now?

The above, plus my grandparents' inherited library of literature, first editions, German automobile bound magazines from the 40's with the most amazing graphics, Balzac and Melville and Thurber and Sitwell and Sedaris and Mitford; and aeronautica, and design, and maybe a thousand books on art alone. Like I said, it’s kind of a problem, but I love my books so. My dining room is one huge old table, and four walls of floor to ceiling, stuffed bookshelves. It's actually very cozy and intimate.

What I'm reading now are mostly books on flying—biographies, and St. Exupery, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and even the Cessna 172 manual because it’s pertinent to my next book. Also Just Kids by Patti Smith, and (guilty pleasure) rereading The Shell Seekers, by Rosemunde Pilcher, for the twentieth time.

Do you have a favorite memoir (aside from your own, of course)?

Funnily enough, I rarely read memoirs, but my absolute favorite is My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell.

I understand you're at work on another book: what's this one about?

I am, and it's another memoir. It's called Machinery of Love & Death, and it's a Northwestern tragicomedy about a marriage, several funerals, and learning to fly airplanes.

Finally, I just have to ask: what happened that day in Maine when you and your brother hauled all the food from the kitchen up on the roof?

If you can believe it, nothing! Our only punishment was that my brother and I had to eat dinner with our nanny instead of sit at the table with the grownups. No wonder we all turned out as badly behaved as we did.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell